Not since Jim Caviezel hitched himself to a cross and got struck by lightning playing JC himself has an actor suffered so mightily for his craft. Enter Leonardo DiCaprio, the heir to Mel Gibson’s “they killed my family, I will have my revenge” throne. In The Revenant, DiCaprio plays a guide for a fur-trading company who survives a savage Indian assault, is brutally mauled by a mama grizzly, finds himself stitched up like the Necronomicon, left for dead and buried alive all before dragging his ass across a frigid tundra hot on vengeance’s trail.
The A-list actor, also hot in pursuit of his first Oscar win, went through hell to get the shots that visionary director Alejandro González Iñárritu needed. This included crawling into real animal carcasses, enduring constant bouts of hypothermia, scrambling in and out of freezing rivers, and consuming actual raw bison liver. The latter induced vomiting for the vegetarian actor. DiCaprio admits, “I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.” The commitment shines through wholesale, making for an absolutely visceral performance riddled with real pain, soul-busting sorrow and bitter determination. That the machinations driving DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass reflects in part the actor’s nigh-unstoppable resolve to consistently involve himself with the best films possible in search of that golden statue makes it all the more potent.
Playing opposite DiCaprio, Tom Hardy is The Revenant‘s heavy, a half-scalped veteran with a greedy streak and realist’s outlook. Hardy adopts a garbled Texan accent as the worn John Fitzgerald to convincing effect and with DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass only getting a fistful of lines (he’s more of a grunter), it’s Hardy who walks away with the film’s best and most memorable one-liners. Hardy has proved a powerhouse over the past few years and his latest performance could just be his best yet. His being passed over for an Academy Award has become a disappointingly annual event (and according to our calculations, he should be standing on a small mountain of nods (Bronson, Warrior, Locke, The Drop)) but his meaty, pitch perfect role in The Revenant will hopefully prove to be his first.
For their parts, Domhnall Gleeson as the stodgy but honorable Captain Andrew Henry and, to an even greater degree, Will Poulter as the young, easily influenced Jim Bridger also add to the smart tapestry of thespian talent on decadent display. For a movie with such impressive technical flawlessness, the performances keep you enrapt during every moment missing a huge action beat.
The goings-on behind the camera however make for the kind of fascinating drama that demands a future documentary in the vein of My Best Fiend or Hearts of Darkness. Production stretched from a six-month shoot to last nearly eleven grueling months. Crewmembers walked away and were fired in mass. Producers found themselves barred from the set. With verifiably brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki opting to shoot only in natural light, Iñárritu and his troop only had a few hours of viable sunlight each day in which to work. Again, tortuous methodology reveals stunning turnout. Lubezki’s work is the cinematic height of the year, a stunning triumph of pure will power, diligent location scouting and technical mastery. You can almost see your breathe in the theater, the experience is so utterly chilling.
The emotional, steady core of The Revenant comes from Glass’ tender bond with his Pawnee offspring, a loyal son and the last remaining member of his family. Iñárritu’s film comes complete with that overused tag “Inspired by true events” but many will be surprised to learn that the often heinous, borderline impossible, events displayed on screen are indeed biographical. Glass was said to have been captured by the Pawnee, well before the bear incident, and there fell for a native woman.
Screenwriters Mark L. Smith and Iñárritu take small liberties with the story by supplmenting additional motivation for Glass in a tightly-woven relationship with his son (a character evidently all but invented for the purposes of the film) but it’s incredible how many of the events – including the native massacre, a mutilation by bear, his abandonment for dead and Glass’ six-week attempted journey back to civilization – are as factual as they are. Just bringing this story to life is a true feat of filmmaking diligence but the lengths the cast and crew went to in order to honor the hellish experience that Glass withstood extends beyond the realm of admirable into that rare foundry of true blistering perfection.
And for all the trouble that Iñárritu put his cast and crew through, the man directs like a bat out of hell. An early battle sequence melds his long-take methodology in with an almost preternatural sense of intimacy in the confines of none other than a crazy action scene. His camera is stuffed tight in the faces of combating men, racing to and fro to capture the frantic brutality. As the escaping company of trappers and traders abscond onto a wooden raft, Iñárritu tips his hat to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God in more ways than one. The psychological torment, the imposing natural elements, the electric, sanity-shaking performances. That The Revenant almost intentionally feels like something the German auteur might have made were he privy to today’s technologies back in the 70s is the highest compliment I can give.
Whatever asshat said that The Revenant was “too brutal for women” (actual quote) was onto something, flagrant sexism aside. If you amend that statement to reflect that The Revenant may prove hard to stomach for more sensitive viewers, I could definitely endorse that comment. Just keep the gender bias out (my girlfriend already called it her “favorite film of the year”.) Rumors circulated by some silly, nay stupid, source claimed DiCaprio’s Glass is raped by a bear in the film and though no bestiality occurs, the assault is certainly a ravaging to be watched through tight fists and heard through audience shrieks. It’s fluid and visceral and nasty as hell; a “how did they DO that?” sequence in a film stuffed full of them. Just another stroke of technical genius in a film overflowing with them.
Part of me feels that my loving The Revenant was inevitable. But I’m ok with that. Anytime a studio wants to cut one of my favorite up-and-coming directors a hundred million dollar check, chuck him into the deepest wildernesses equipped with one of today’s greatest working cinematographer and two of Hollywood’s most prized stars, I will likely be aboard, crash helmet fastened. That it can blends the thoughtful, deliberately paced flourishes of art films in with a tough-as-nails survival story could potentially leave it in the cold with some more hyper-active and impatient viewers (read general audiences) but anytime a movie feels like Terrence Malick impregnated a Michael Mann film, I’ll be singing its praises like a fat lady at a cake convention.
CONCLUSION: A technically consummate piece of high art bred with a tension-ridden tale of against-all-odds perseverance, ‘The Revenant’ is a brutal, frigid masterwork that benefits from its callous commitment from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, brilliant visuals from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and incredible performances from stars Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio.